Must a Jew Believe in God?

The third stage of God's evolution (or devolution) comes in His revelation to Moses, in which he presents Himself as a nameless God. The evolution of God does not stop with the Bible. Ironically, Maimonides takes it even further by positing that nothing can be said about God. We can venture to say what God isn't, but God's positive attributes are unthinkable.

The next step, says Fromm, should have been a rejection of God completely, but even he, a self-declared non-theistic mystic, acknowledges that this is impossible for religious Jews. He does, however, recognize that because Judaism has not been primarily concerned with beliefs per se, one who does not believe in God can still come very close to living a life that is fully Jewish in spirit. 

Awe Over Belief: Howard Wettstein

In a more recent discussion, Howard Wettstein, a philosopher at the University of California, Riverside has gone even further than Fromm has. In "Awe and the Religious Life," Wettstein's vision of Judaism is more traditional than Fromm's, and yet he gives more credence to the Jew who rejects a supernatural God altogether.

At the heart of Wettstein's article is a quote by Abraham Joshua Heschel that echoes the thoughts about the non-centrality of belief mentioned above. According to Heschel, "Awe rather than faith is the cardinal attitude of the religious Jew. In Biblical language, the religious man is not called 'believer,' as he is for example in Islam (mu'min), but yare hashem (one who stands in awe of God)."

Working off of this notion, Wettstein claims that at the heart of the Jewish religious sensibility is a distinctive attitude toward life, a major component of which is awe. Various aspects of Jewish religious practice -- prayer, Torah study, the rhythms of the Jewish calendar -- are meant to facilitate this attitude.

Wettstein acknowledges that the object of this awe is God. He does, however, propose that this awe, and the meaningful life it helps to create, is also available to a naturalist who rejects a supernatural God. To demonstrate this point, he compares this "religious naturalist" to a non-fundamentalist theist, one who believes in God and Judaism, but doesn't understand every biblical story literally.

Such a person does not believe that the creation story in Genesis reflects actual events. God didn't necessarily create the world in six 24-hour periods nor did God actually rest on the seventh day.

This, however, does not negate the meaning of the story. "The notion of Sabbath, as creative retreat from creative engagement with the world, as spiritual renewal," writes Wettstein, "will be unaffected." The imagery, religious resonances, and meaning of the story are available to this non-literalist even though she does not believe it to be factually true.

Wettstein argues that a similar approach is available to one who wishes to avoid supernaturalism altogether. Just as the non-literalist theist finds meaning in the narrative of creation without necessarily believing it to be "true," so too the naturalist can find meaning in the story, and all of Judaism, without believing in the objective reality of a supernatural God.

Wettstein is not interested in philosophical reductions of the idea of God, that is, attempts to say that the word "God" really refers to some aspect of the natural world. Rather, he accepts the imagery of the Jewish God as it is, using this imagery to cultivate meaning, to find fellowship in community, and to connect to past generations.

Wettstein's approach, however, only works for someone interested in cultivating religious meaning in relationship to a concept of God, however non-literal.

In contrast, the Secular Humanistic movement, a small denomination started by Sherwin Wine in 1963, caters to those Jews who wish to identify Jewishly but are opposed to God imagery. Secular Humanistic Jews go as far as saying that believing in God devalues humans, as it suggests that the source of human value lies outside of human beings themselves.

So, Must a Jew Believe?

Nevertheless, on an official level, most Jews are uncomfortable with the idea of a Judaism without God. This is true for the liberal movements as much as it is for more traditional Jews. In 1994, the UAHC (the synagogue council of the Reform movement) rejected an application for membership from a synagogue that practiced "Judaism with a humanistic perspective" because the synagogue's principles deviated from "the historic God-orientation of Reform Judaism."

So, must a Jew believe in God? In a sense, it depends how you define four words: "must," "Jew," "believe," and, of course, "God."

In short: probably. And probably not.


This article was first published at, a Patheos Partner, and is reprinted with permission.

Daniel Septimus is the Editor-in-Chief of He hosts the 92nd Street Y's Jewish Literary Exchange and holds an MA in creative writing from the University of Manchester (UK).

2/18/2010 5:00:00 AM